Tunnel didn't have a chance, city says
The day before the state Department of Transportation issued a report damning the city's proposal for a slimmed-down tunnel to replace the...
Seattle Times staff reporter
The day before the state Department of Transportation issued a report damning the city's proposal for a slimmed-down tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, nervous city officials called reporters to their offices in downtown Seattle.
The state's report would not be good, they said earlier this week. "They will trash it," said Marianne Bichsel, aide to Mayor Greg Nickels, who is leading the effort to replace the viaduct with a hybrid tunnel.
Bichsel was right.
The so-called "tunnel lite" has "serious operational and safety problems," the DOT said. The city's plan to convert shoulders to exit lanes during rush hour would be dangerous and could cause stalled vehicles to block the highway — as happens now on the shoulder-less viaduct.
The Washington State Patrol, too, found fault with the plan. "The hybrid proposal offers design features that I believe to be detrimental to public safety," Patrol Chief John Batiste wrote in an unsolicited letter to the DOT. Seattle's police and fire departments had said the plan was fine.
"We didn't trash the tunnel," state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said. "Its limitations were revealed by our review." He claims the state, instead, was "trashed" by the city's late "tunnel lite" proposal.
The city claims the state's analysis of the four-lane tunnel plan didn't give the idea a chance. In dismissing the proposed use of the shoulders, the state DOT didn't consider other cities where tunnels are built with even narrower shoulders than the one in this proposal, says Grace Crunican, the city's transportation director.
The city asserts the DOT was under pressure from Gov. Christine Gregoire and legislative leaders to dump the tunnel plan.
Truth, speculation or just hard feelings? No one knows for sure. But consider what was lacking in the state's tunnel study:
• Time. The state had nine days to send its report to Gregoire. David Dye, one of the DOT's leaders in investigating the city's tunnel, told legislators a few weeks ago that a good study would take several months.
The time was so squeezed, Dye said, he couldn't even analyze whether the city's $3.4 billion cost for its tunnel was credible — as Gregoire had requested.
It wasn't money, then, that killed the tunnel — at least not in the DOT report. Analysts never even got to consider it.
• Outside experts. For weeks the city had asked Gregoire to bring in her expert review panel — which was appointed last summer to review plans to replace the viaduct — to look at the city's tunnel plan. Last month, members had said it looked promising.
Last week, members were told they could only look at the state's final tunnel report — giving them exactly one day to review it before it went to the governor. The state recanted and called the panel back last week, but only a handful came, and they left town saying there wasn't time to do the job right.
• City involvement. The day the viaduct's project team began work on "tunnel lite," the door was shut on the city.
The state insisted the city's participation would prejudice the review.
The city, for its part, said it needed to be involved because the tunnel was its plan and its staff had been working with the state team on the now-defunct six-lane tunnel for more than five years.
• Political cohesion. House Speaker Frank Chopp was fervently opposed to the tunnel and vowed to kill it, and he had several colleagues on his side. For the city, the battle was uphill, complicated by mixed messages from Gregoire, who first asked the city to hold a vote on how to replace the viaduct and then, after the DOT report came out, said the tunnel was dead.
Is there any point to the election?
As for the all-mail vote, does it matter? Should it go forward?
The messages are mixed on this, too. Two City Council members, Peter Steinbrueck and Nick Licata, want to cancel the election, which is costing the city $1 million. "It's a waste of taxpayer money, politics at its worst, the absolute wrong way to decide one of the most important issues facing Seattle for a generation," Steinbrueck said.
But colleagues disagree: "If we cancel it, it's dead," Councilman Richard McIver said of the tunnel. "The ghost is still hanging out there."
Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054
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